December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. We’ve got a special treat for you this week, which is “Seven Soldiers Week”, so check back each day for a review of one of the Seven Soldier miniseries that Morrison put together.
Shining Knight is one of those heroes that Morrison picked from relative obscurity for his Seven Soldiers project. The only encounter I ever had with the character was watching an episode of Justice League Unlimited featuring the original Seven Soldiers line-up as a bit of an in-joke. So, I don’t really have any frame of reference for how Morrison is reworking the character here, but I imagine it’s quite thoroughly.
Shining Knight is actually a rather strange little comic. It’s perhaps – with the exception of Klarion the Witch-Boy – the furthest of the seven comics from the traditional superhero archetype, at least in outward appearance. It’s the story of a knight and his Pegasus. Our hero, Ystin doesn’t have a desire to do justice or any particular social philosophy. “This kid doesn’t look like any superhero I ever seen,” one of the cops holding him remarks, and – to a certain extent – he’s correct. Ystin is a knight on a quest, a fairytale archetype which obviously rather pre-dates that of the American superhero. However, I think it’s safe to draw a connecting line between the sort of high fantasy that the questing knight represents and today’s men in tights.
Indeed, Ystin recalls an old prophecy about times of great need ahead. “Old men would give false judgments. Legislators would make unjust laws. Warriors would betray one another. Men would become thieves. And virtue would vanish from the world.” If that doesn’t sound like a world in dire need of a hero, then I don’t know what does. Responding to this strange world that Ystin, our time-displaced knight finds himself, he vows, “Not while one Knight of Camelot endures.” He’s a hero, one granted great powers and great skill to overcome impossible odds. In his own time, he would have been called a knight, but now he’s a superhero.
After all, Morrison suggests, if the Arthurian Court were invented today – stories of great men doing impossible things – surely they’d fall within the archetype of superhero comic books? Surely it’s a logical counterpart to those old tales that have been passed down throughout generations – surely the story of the superhero is just the latest iteration of that particular archetype, one that has grown and evolved each time the story was told?
Morrison has always enjoyed playing with meta-fictional constructs, linking stories and ideas to older stories. In Final Crisis, Superman singing defeated a giant vampire composed of all the evil and darkness in comic books. In All-Star Superman, Superman created a world where he didn’t exist, only to discover that they would write comic books about him. Here, the immortal Don Vincenzo is smart enough to recognise that he’s caught in a “mythology” as the destroyers of Arthurian society come bearing down on him.
Morrison is brewing the perfect pop culture cocktail. Part superhero origin, part high fantasy, part science fiction, part mob story. He writes “a monster named Guilt” as more than an emotional construct that stalks Ystin around downtown Los Angeles, but as an actual weapon – “a Sheeda Mood 7 Mind Destroyer.” Morrison always liked the idea of a sentient idea, so a weaponised emotion seems a fitting continuation of a theme. However, this aspect of the story is more fascinating because you can see Morrison taking ideas associated with one genre and filtering it through the others. It’s a classic story-telling device made literal through a science-fiction concept.
The story of a young knight requires them to face their own sense of doubt and guilt as part of the personal journey, usually as represented through a physical threat. Morrison makes that sense of guilt a physical threat of itself. Ystin can not only overcome Guilt – he can physically beat and defeat it.
Along the way, I do like the notion of the Sheeda as something of a predatory civilisation, something which exists to cut off human civilisation as it reaches its prime. “Perhaps Agent Helligan, when a civilisation reaches its peak,” the Sheeda Queen muses, “there comes a time of harvest, let’s say.” It’s interesting that Helligan wonders out loud about how the Incas never built space ships – the answer to that particular case is because another human civilisation came in and conquered them – that culture overwhelmed and devoured their own.
It’s a fascinating idea, and I can see why Morrison likes the Sheeda so much. After all, what is civilisation except an idea? So an idea consuming and deconstructing another idea must seem like a wonderful notion to the author, the idea of various ideas subtly invading the host, like a little identity virus, corrupting and distorting, and eventually devouring its prey. It’s absolutely fascinating stuff, and one of Morrison’s more fascinating high concepts.
The problem is that Shining Knight really doesn’t have too much going on. The four issues just sort of breeze by. More than any other miniseries, these four issues feel like they are just set-up for the main event. There’s little fun to be had in reading them by themselves. You could argue it’s pointless to read any of the seven miniseries by themselves, but I’d argue that Shining Knight is a particularly strong example. Frankenstein, The Guardian, Klarion the Witch-Boy, The Bulleteer, Zatanna and Mister Miracle all tell their own stories, while Shining Knight is so firmly linked to the concept of Seven Soldiers that there’s no chance to play with some clever high concepts like the “shapeless one” stalking Zatanna or terrorists at the Global Village or anything like that.
On the other hand, Simone Bianchi’s artwork is absolutely beautiful. Shining Knight might actually be the best looking miniseries of the entire set (if I wasn’t so deeply in love with the work of Fraiser Irving). It does look just perfect and some of his layouts are fantastic, especially talking head scenes.
Shining Knight is perhaps the weakest of the seven miniseries, at least taken on its own merits. It is the most closely tied to the central plot of the Seven Soldiers, but I’m not convinced that’s enough. I don’t feel like I know enough about Shining Knight to ever want to read about Ystin again – the character doesn’t seem to exist outside the core concept of Morrison’s big plot, which means that once it’s complete, there’s no sense of Ystin outside of it. It’s a shame, because it’s actually a pretty cool hook.
Note: I refer to Ystin as a “he” throughout the piece so as not to spoil a pretty big twist.
Check out our complete collection of reviews of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series:
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