Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Knight & Squire: A study of structure

The final issue of Knight & Squire comes out today. In the first five issues, this book has gone from a lighthearted diversion to an absolute, can-hardly-wait, top-of-the-stack read.

There are many great things about this series, but one of the most interesting is the overall story structure. It is rather unorthodox, but extremely effective. Let’s examine this structure a bit, in preparation for the final issue.

(Fair warning: this post will contain a bevy of plot points, or “spoilers,” as the kids like to call them. If you haven’t been reading this series, I strongly recommend you stop here, then call your local comic shop and pre-order the trade. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did … okay. Is it just us? Good).

We’ll go issue by issue, and break down how writer Paul Cornell and artist Jimmy Broxton lulled us into such a false sense of security, creating an idyllic superhero world and then shattering it in the powerful final pages of issue five.

Issue 1:

Taken by itself, this issue was – let’s be honest – odd. It was almost defiantly plotless, and was essentially an issue-length set-piece of Knight & Squire hanging out in a bar – excuse me, a pub – with various other heroes and villains. We were introduced to a ridiculous number of new characters, most with a heavily British slant (for example, the First Eleven is a Cricket-themed crime cartel with branches in India, Australia and the West Indies. But, Squire n
otes, “They’ve never caught on in America, for some reason”).

Two of these new characters will become quite important later in the series: Jarvis Poker, the British Joker, who models himself after the Joker, but is much kinder and gentler, more of a rapscallion than a true villain; And the Shrike, a young man who hasn’t yet decided if he’ll be a hero or a villain.

This issue feels like Mr. Cornell’s way of planting a flag, and of saying, “this is what Knight & Squire will be. Unmistakably British, supremely character-driven, and a celebration of all that separates us, culturally and psychologically, from your side of the pond.”

As I said, it was odd. But it was also new, and refreshing. And great. I couldn’t wait for Issue 2.

Issue 2:

And then, sad to say, Issue 2 was a bit of a letdown, at least for me. It started out fantastic. We’re introduced to Great Worden, Knight & Squire’s hometown. A super villain is there to seek out and confront them, but instead he meets up with a shopkeeper who grouses about the fact that Knight & Squire are never around, and do nothing to help out the community. But soon, we realize, the shopkeeper was faking it, just doing what it takes to send the super-villain back to London. Truth is, the whole town knows Knight & Squire’s secret identity, and everyone does all they can to protect their hometown heroes.

The rest of the issue … well, I had to re-read it to remember what happened. The first time through, I had a bit of trouble following the thread. I did much better this time, but it still strikes me as the weakest of the bunch. It’s possible – probable – that this is due to the cultural differences, and that my American-ness was just a bit more of a barrier in this issue than in others. Under different circumstances, I would have considered dropping the series after this issue. But this was written by Paul Cornell! Paul Cornell, who had Dracula attack London by shooting vampire missiles down from the moon; Paul Cornell, who gave Gorilla Grodd a No. 1 Attacking Spoon; Paul Cornell, who wrote Human Nature/Family of Blood, the most powerful Doctor Who episodes I’ve ever seen (he was showing them mercy. My God, that ending still gives me chills every time I think of it).

Besides, I definitely loved that opening sequence, which said volumes about the type of heroes Knight & Squire are, how enmeshed they are in their community, and how different they are from their American counterparts.

Issue 3 & 4:

I’m combining these in my summary, even though they were both excellent issues and great fun. In Issue 3 a gaggle of cloned British kings (led by Richard III!) run amok across the English countryside, determined to take back the throne. And in Issue 4, Squire has a date with Shrike, the young man from Issue 1, who has since decided to come down firmly on the “hero” side of the ledger. But, alas, their date is interrupted when Knight’s armor takes on a life of its own, and goes on the attack.

After reading these issues, I knew just what Mr. Cornell was up to: Knight & Squire was going to be a series of exciting, action-packed done-in-ones, with a romantic and personal thread running through them. I had no doubt that when this series ended, I would have had great fun, and read some terrific stories. But I wouldn’t have been emotionally moved. I would never feel a sense of terror or dread. It would all be quite lighthearted, quite good-natured, quite … British.

This is, of course, what Mr. Cornell wanted me to think. He had structured this series perfectly: An issue of almost pure set-up, followed by a series of done-in-ones that continued the sense of fun, and deepened our understanding of this world. And now, we were only two issues from the end. Surely, the story would simply proceed as expected.

Issue 5:

But, of course, it didn’t. Issue 5 starts out on a fairly dark note, as we learn that Jarvis Poker, the British Joker, is dying, and is questioning whether his life meant anything at all. As a gift to their old friend, Knight & Squire essentially allow Jarvis to go on one last wacky crime spree; to make his mark, and go out on top. The issue then proceeds in the same lighthearted, fun fashion I’d come to expect from this mini-series.

And then, things go bad. Fast. The Shrike tries to apprehend Jarvis Poker, who seems more annoyed than angered by this turn of event. But before their conversation can go very far, the Shrike is shot from off-panel. He goes tumbling off of London Bridge to his death. And we turn the page to reveal his killer -- the American Joker.

And that’s just how I thought of him, as I was reading it: the American Joker. Not “the real Joker,” or simply “the Joker.” Because here, in this world Paul Cornell had created, Jarvis Poker was my Joker. And now this American psychopath had suddenly appeared, to tear his world apart. It seems the American Joker wasn’t happy with all the attention Jarvis Poker’s crime spree had garnered. So, he says, he’s come to England to kill all the British superheroes. And he’s going to make Jarvis help.

Now that … that is how you end an issue. It’s shocking, and terrible, and a complete shift in tone. And yet it feels so right. How did Mr. Cornell accomplish this?

Well, as I said, he did two things at once: he shocked and horrified us, and he completely shifted the tone of the book, while making it feel organic and correct. The shock and horror were a result of all the work he’d put in previously, over the past five issues. Every scene, every line, every panel, every character – every moment in this series was designed to make us think the stakes were much lower than in your average DC comic book. These guys aren’t fighting for life and death. The heroes and villains are all part of the same chummy club. This book is lighthearted! It’s goofy! It’s fun! Every crisis is resolved in 22 pages. So sit back, relax, and have a good time. Mr. Cornell accomplished this so completely that when the hammer falls, it catches us completely off-guard.

But what about the second part? The shift in tone? How did that work? I mean, imagine if one of the Beagle Boys suddenly set Uncle Scrooge on fire. Or if Reggie stabbed Jughead in the heart. It wouldn’t work. We would throw the book down in disgust.

So why did this work? Because in Knight & Squire, we never left the DC universe. It’s clear, throughout the book, that Knight, Squire, the Shrike, Jarvis Poker, the Milk Men, the First Eleven, the Organ Grinder, all of them live in the same universe as Batman, Lex Luthor, the Green Lantern Corps and the rest of the DCU. This is never treated as some alternate universe or Elseworlds story. Instead, it’s treated as a place separated from the rest of the DCU only by culture and geography. So when the American Joker shows up, we’re stunned, but we understand. Of course he would show up. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? Nothing this good can last forever. Nothing this peaceful can stay uncorrupted, in a world as corrupt and dangerous as the DCU.

So, as I said: it’s shocking. It’s terrible. But it feels just right. Well done, Mr. Cornell. I can’t wait to see what happens in Issue 6.

Sales Figures

Because I’m both a comics writer and a pragmatist, I can’t wrap up without discussing one more thing: the sales figures.

This story is amazing. The collected edition has easily earned a spot on my bookcase. But how did it fare in the marketplace? I looked around for a similar book to compare it to, but the problem is: there are no similar books. Finally, I settled on Captain Britain and MI: 13. It’s not a perfect comparison. Captain Britain was an ongoing, it was tied in to Secret Invasion, and the characters were more well-known. But both were very anglocentric, both were written by Mr. Cornell, and both came out every month, on time. And to be fair, I’m comparing only at the drop-off in sales figures, not the number of units sold.

So, how do they compare? W
ell, Captain Britain 1 sold 43,281 issues (all numbers from ICv2). Issue 2 saw a 12 percent drop-off, and by issue 5, there’d been a 24 percent drop off from Issue 1. By contrast, Knight & Squire started off at 21,867 issues sold. Issue 2 saw a 34 percent drop off, and by issue 5, there’d been a 53 percent drop-off.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. Knight & Squire was a tough book for Americans, and Cornell’s structure intentionally backloaded the emotional punch of the story. I could easily see some marketing executive asking whether the American Joker could show up at the end of Issue #1, or at least Issue #2.

So, as wonderful as Cornell’s work here is, it’s probably not something we’ll see heavily emulated (as if that were even possible!). But I, for one, am thrilled to see a writer as talented as Mr. Cornell taking chances, and telling a great story, regardless of how easily marketable it is. The comics industry needs more of that type of risk-taking, more writers willing to tell unique stories that don’t follow the predictable patterns.

Congratulations, Mr. Cornell. And thank you.

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