In which the blogger concludes his discussion of the wonderful "Knight & Squire" by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton, which began here and continued here, here & here;
I don't think I can help myself, and I'm certainly not going to try. I simply love the fact that Squire's secret entrance to the Knight's underground superhero cave is hidden in the shed at the bottom of her garden. By the same token, I find it improbably touching that Beryl's progress out to the shed in an emergency involves her negotiating a cheek-pecking mother and the best wishes of Mr Kochalski, who sometimes forgets, it seems, that he shouldn't call the super-person next door by her first name when she's in costume. It cheers me up to imagine a children's TV programme in which Squire has to hide in her bedroom's fitted wardrobe in order to change into her crime-fighting costume, although the thought that a series could be produced for adults which showed the same would cheer me up even more. For there seems to be something quietly but fundamentally disturbing to a great many superhero fans about a comicbook which admits that the very idea of fighting crime anonymously in a costume is, for all that it's a playful and fascinating idea, quite simply absurd. Similarly, the idea that a comic might weave its way between scenes which are purposefully ridiculous and those which are profoundly unsettling appears to violate the rules of the superhero reader's paradigm. I'd imagine that those sequences in Knight & Squire which are simultaneously both horrific and whimsical must be seem all the more schismatic.
If whimsy and horror are "all mixed up together", as the script for Knight & Squire insists, then why not good humour and political conviction too? We discussed before how the tens of new British super-people in For Six have been entirely cut loose from a pop fiction's taken-for-granted responsibility to positively represent sections of the community. Instead, Paul Cornell chooses to devolve that responsibility onto the community itself, and he does so quite deliberately in the comic's second issue, where the reader who might think that Knight & Squire is nothing but nostalgic and even deeply Conservative vision of Britain can be reassured that nothing of the sort is intended. In fact, it couldn't be any more clear what Cornell is doing when he juxtaposes the villages of Great Worden and Yeominster Churney. Great Worden may be a "country town", but it's a conspiciously multicultural one, and rather shockingly for a comic book locale, it's actually somewhere for a hero to defend out of fondness rather than as a reluctant or even disconnected duty.
It's a community made up of the likes of both Beryl's housewife mother and the well-meaning and superhero-supporting Mr Kochalski, of the splendidly take-no-nonsense storeowner Mr Patel and Lord Cyril from the castle up on the hill. Cornell's Great Worden stands as a marker of modernity and inclusiveness every bit as much as any idealised inner-city area could, and that's of course the point. A community in Knight & Squire is defined as worthwhile according to the degree to which it can incorporate as much difference and variety as possible, rather than according to its capacity to exclude the same. Whether such an ideal is to be found in Great Worden or some inner-city housing estate is surely entirely irrelevant, though a great deal of the media tends to hesitate to associate anything that's semi-rural and peripheral to the urban centres with the best and most progressive aspects of the nation. Yet Great Worden's high-street features not just a very traditional English butchers, but Mr Patel's newsagents and FONES4U too, while the folks who walk its pavements are just as likely to be mixed-race couples are they are elderly gentlemen in Panama hats. It's a town of "golf sales" and housing estates just as it is of aristocrat's estates and country cats asleep on garden fences, and it stands as a deliberate retort to the rhetoric of both Little Englanders and big-city hipsters.
By contrast, the town of Yeominster Churney is notably untouched by anyone but the most whitebread of indigenous stock. As we'd expect of a Cornell script, that doesn't mean that its inhabitants are by definition the enemy. There's a furiously determined pub landlady, for example, who wants nothing to do with any talk of "Morris", let alone any authoritarian longing for a "Back To Basics" England. Sadly, a great many of the men of the town are besotted with the fascist Morris Major, who wraps his racism and sexism and homophobia up in the seductive and vicious cliches of a time-lost and perfectly sceptered isle. As with all of the antagonists in Knight & Squire, the tellingly-named Major represents a tendency in British culture which is at odds with Cornell's liberal humanism. Major wants to "tip the British Isles in time and space, slide it back to an era before newfangled things like -- homosexuality", and it's no surprise that his fascism is the product of a mind born in a "Hell dimension's version of Britain". After all, the British may have spent a great deal of the past eighty years and more struggling not to ignore or even tolerate one form or another of fascism, and yet fascism itself remains, as it's always been, a distinctly unBritish phenomena.
The poor doomed AI that's corrupted with solipsism and despair, the superhero sidekick who justifies his own violence and self-regard with reference to an ill-understood foreign culture. The six Kings who stand for the British obsession with the supposed virtues of tyrannical autocrats. The Joker, representing the ultimate challenge to the hope of rationality and empathy. Nazis and naval-gazers, royalty and racists, the insane and the ill-fated; all of the protagonists that we come across in Knight & Squire stand for qualities and situations which can undermine and destroy an individual's belief in the value of the community to which they belong. And if, by contrast, Cornell and Broxton's superheroes never appear to directly represent anything specific about their fellow citizens, it's because the nation in Knight & Squire is something which shouldn't ever be defined solely in terms of the presence or the absence of any of particular group of its citizens. Everyone belongs in this vision of Britain unless they predatorily choose not to, and even then, as with the super-villains "who don't like some blasted Yank doing our job for us", there's always an opt-in clause too. It's that business of constantly opting in that counts.
A straight-forward way of representing vice and virtue in a superhero comic, you might argue, and yet, it was surely important that the ethical themes of the comic were as explicit as they could be without reducing everything to the thinnest of polemics, to a tub-thumping diatribe directed against any narrative which reduces a society or even an popular artform to a narrow prescription of ins and outs, ideals and trash. Given the purposefully odd way in which the superheroes of Knight & Squire are presented, the other aspects of the comic's structure which might represent moral qualities needed to be as sturdy and transparent as possible. There's enough to throw any reader in the only-apparently self-indulgent and anachronistic likes of Beyfrentos and the Cidermen in the first place, so that deliberate absence of ethical types, if not ethical action, at the heart of the book needed to be buttressed with clarity elsewhere.
Yet if there's one single quality about Knight & Squire that I most admire, it's the fact that it's a book which needs no explanation at all. The reader can note how clever the gradual darkening of the tone of the book is from chapter to chapter, for example, and recognise how that's designed to appear to mimic many a meta-story intended to trace the history of the superhero from innocence to violent pseudo-maturity. And it's certainly amusing to note how that misdirection leads cleverly not to a bloody and conscienceless closing dust-up, but to a fundamentally good natured end to the book. But all that referencing of the post-Watchman tradition of comics about comics also serves a specific dramatic purpose too, for it helps to create a growing sense of menace and uneasiness in the story itself as well as playfully manipulating the expectations of comics fans. As such, there's no expert knowledge, no inter-textual mastery, required to make complete and enjoyable sense of what's going on in the narrative here. Comic books, just like communities, are evidently things which Mr Cornell believes shouldn't exclude those who'd like to get involved with them. For all its cleverness and control, for all its elegant mixing of traditional and, yes, experimental storytelling, for all that it's a deeply political narrative, Knight & Squire is first and foremost exactly what it appears to be; an entirely accessible, all-ages superhero tale. Its ethical purpose, its genre self-awareness, its layers of ambition and meaning, are all designed to work in such a way that they add to, rather than replace or compensate for the absence of, the entertainment value of story itself.
And if there's a single panel in Knight & Squire which seems to sum up the appeal of the comic for me, then it's that of the terminally ill Jarvis Poker sitting on sofa in what appears to be a furniture store. Nobody there seems excessively interested in Jarvis's unhappy soliloquy, and they're certainly not frightened of the prop that he's holding before him. But they know him, as one might recognise a near-neighbour from the far end of a street or a celebrity from local TV, and so they're listening even as they can't bring themselves to express any fake-sentimental excess of concern. They're patient and, as complete and somewhat embarrassed strangers often can be, kind too, after a fashion. It's a smartly constructed composition from Mr Broxton, for the eye's taken through the situation at the front of the picture frame before leaving with the sight of life going on in the background as if Jarvis had never been there at all. And that's sadly what's going to happen to the terminally ill Jarvis, and to all of us too. Yet in showing each of these characters, these strangers and fellow citizens together, there's so much of the essential British character that's on parade. It's what Cornell has Jarvis call the business of rubbing along with with our peers, and far from being a purgatorial absence of true feeling, it's the cornerstone of how we Brits so often get by. We tolerate each other, and at times we even pull together in quite remarkable and entirely sincere ways. It's a crowded island, as Jarvis recognises just before his death, and so that's how we survive. And it's no little thing at all.