Monday, 23 January 2012

One Last Look At "Knight & Squire"

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.




  1. Hello Colin,

    I've been packing up to move, which has led, in part, to my getting access to things that had been lost to clutter. One of them was a box of comics from the time I began to read them as an adult, originally to practice my Swedish, around 1990. It included a lot of strong stuff -- Miracleman, Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Sandman, and so on.

    It struck me how little after that had made any impression. I'd once decided to quit after Sandman, but put it off, and then decided to stop after Planetary, and didn't. Some nice work by Warren Ellis, James Robinson, Kieron Gillen, Gail Simone, and other people along the way, but not much of it was going to change your life.

    The one exception I could think of -- and it was a huge one -- was Paul Cornell, first with Captain Britain, then with Knight and Squire. It was a comfort to think that drifting along with all that mediocrity had at least gotten me there. Both were absolutely compelling, but Knight and Squire was the real thing. I'm pleased that you've written so much about it, and so well.

    While packing I was reading some old Spider novels, and one, in particular -- Slaves of the Murder Syndicate -- just seemed much better at many things superhero comics attempt to do. It had that pop license to be lurid and to be indifferent to realism when it doesn't advance the story, but paid attention to character and even drama, and knew how to write involving conflicts. One fight scene goes on for, I suppose, twenty pages, and it nails you for the entire time. It does this by paying attention to detail -- for example, Wentworth is very concerned with losing his center throughout the fight, and when he does he tries to make use of it. It succeeds because it sets up rules about action and consequence that define risk and opportunity and at least touch on the plausible, and so leads you to think about what your own next move would be. It's well thought out enough to be engrossing, and lucidly presented, with a beautiful sense of timing.

    It isn't impossible to do this in comics -- Scott Snyder does it well, for example -- but it is very difficult, and hardly anyone bothers. It's much easier to fall into grunts and magical thinking. This led me to think about what comics were naturally good at, as a medium, and what they weren't. But that's probably a good question to pose and leave open.

  2. Hello Brian:- I think there's a really good article to be written on the topic of the best comics since Sandman came on the scene. The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that it would be a long list, but of course, as with most things, the list of those books which weren't too good, to say the least, would be considerably longer.

    I'm really pleased to hear another good commenter declaring for Knight & Squire. Thanks for your kind words about the pieces. It is the real thing, isn't it, and perhaps it's a step forward in a way that I've not really paid enough attention to until the above. By which I mean, it's a step forward but it doesn't advertise itself as such. In fact, it's actually happy to be seen as something which is at first comfortable and unchallenging when it's in many ways anything but. We're all used to those great steps forward which carried obvious innovations with them, but Knight & Squire uses narrative smartness in a way that makes it hard to spot. In that, it joins a small number of works which are radical while appearing at first to be anything but. And that's the kind of writing that I'm particularly interested in, as I suppose is obvious :)

    I've been meaning to re-read a Spider novel for years now. I have a few on my shelves, so I shall take a visit into the catacombs to check one out. Thank you for the inspiration. I've been reading a great deal of literature recently which the younger me would've thought as worthy. He'd have been wrong, of course, but I do fancy a touch of grit would do me good too.

  3. Hello Colin,

    The Spider novels, I think, fall under Sturgeon's Law. After all, if you're writing a novel a month, it's a wonder it gets done at all, let alone that it's ever any good. What surprises me is the degree to which Page really did commit to the work at points, well beyond what he needed to do meet some very hard deadlines. Another example is the Empire State Trilogy, where New York State falls under a fascist dictatorship.

    But, you know, creo quia absurdum, to once again misquote poor Tertullian. I love the luridness and absurdity, mixed in sometimes with something that's genuinely involving. There probably wasn't much of the latter, and whatever Spider novels you have lying around might not be a big enough sample to contain any of it. In contrast, comics often seem as if they're too busy telling you they're adult (why, they're turning seventeen and a half years old next month) to unbend and have some good dirty fun, as Paul Cornell does so well. Doctor Who hasn't been all Pyramids of Mars all the time, but it's never really lost that pop abandon, particularly under Moffat.

  4. Hello Brian:- I like that phrase pop abandon. And the things which I realise appreciate where fiction is concerned are those which are entirely frivolous and entirely serious too. The best of Who has of course always been that, and it usually falls over for me when either quality is emphasised at the expense of the other.

    I also like the idea that a run of Spider novels might not contain emough of the right stuff, as if there's an vital quality there which might be a touch too diluted if the wrong mix of source material is accessed! As you say, it's hardly surprising how the majority of the pulp material falls down when it's read out of context. The amount of words that those writers had to churn out if they were lucky enough to be in demand. And yet, those were hard, hard years. Writing all day must have seemed very much better than the majority of options. And of course some folks actually worked themselves the ladder very well indeed.

    I have a guilty admission to make. I have never seen Pyramids Of Mars. I think I'd better go sort THAT problem out.

  5. Hello Colin,

    If I didn't do anything else that was good yesterday (as I may not have), at least I brought Pyramids of Mars into somebody's life.

    Speaking of pulps and productivity, Walter B. Gibson (who wrote most of the Shadow novels, as Maxwell Grant) gave some writing tips. One of them was to leave your last sentence for the day unfinished. That way you were dying to get going again the next morning, and you had a place to start.

  6. Hello Brian:-Yep, Pyramids of Mars is on my wish list. Four days of staying on the diet should free up the sugar-money to buy it. Huzzah.

    I've read some wonderful stories of Gibson's writing. Tales of big houses, Mr Gibson dictating stories to a secretary ... I wish he'd writtten a book about how to keep that degree of productivity up.

  7. Hello Colin,

    Here are some of Gibson's tips on writing:

    I mentioned Gibson once to someone I know whose a writer and documentary film maker, and he said that he'd interviewed him once, for a film about Houdini. Needless to say I was envious ... Not too envious to offer to introduce him to Benoit Mandelbrot, who he was interested in making a film about, but he never followed up, and now, unfortunately, it's too late.

    While I've never heard of Walter Gibson dictating anything, Erle Stanley Gardner worked that way, and as I recall he had three secretaries, one of them his sister. He'd write a novel in three days. Once one of his secretaries stopped him, because she'd noticed that he'd already written the book.

    And then there's Lionel Fanthorpe:

  8. Hello Brian:- When I've a moment, I'll take a look and see where my all-too-fallable memory picked up the idea of Gibson dictating his work. I have a small half-shelf of pulp histories, so if it's not there, I've misremembered.

    Thank you for the links. I sjall be following them up, I will assure you.

    I didn't know ESG was so nose-to-the-grindstone, but I should have given how many of the Splendid Wife's collection of old green-covered Penguin books are by him. Good for him. I admire industry matched with craft.

  9. When will there be a sequel?I realise it may be harder with recent events in batman inc but its comics there always a way

    1. Hello there:- I fear I very much doubt it. I asked Paul Cornell about that on Twitter, and his comment was that the characters had returned to Grant Morrison. (He said so without anything that suggested ill-grace, I promise you.) Of course, since then, he's left DC for Marvel, and there have been moments, such as when Gail Simone was sacked from Batgirl, that he's expressed, shall we say, frustration with key aspects of how the company does its job.

      So, sadly, I think not :-(