At first glance, Shining Knight could fall prey to the pithy quip that there’s been a tendency at DC post-Sandman to lean into a pantomime of Neil Gaiman on fantasy oriented titles. It’s a pattern clearly visible in analyses of The Invisibles, Fables, and Lucifer’s debuts, but if anything Shining Knight highlights how Gaiman and Morrison diverge in their approaches to integrating the English imagination and history into their work.
Shining Knight, as the debut miniseries and the event more broadly, is deeply rooted in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem The Faerie Queen. It’s the kind of allusion that draws snap comparisons to Gaiman’s playbook, but Morrison’s implementation of it is entirely his own. Shining Knight opens with Camelot in a desperate, last ditch battle against a much more advanced invader in the form of laser gun toting fae called the Sheeda lead by their queen Gloriana. Camelot’s desperate state is articulated by the knights referring to themselves as being of “the broken table” either literally or as a reflection of Arthur’s death at the hands of the Sheeda.
To the uninitiated, it’s a bit of a stock fantasy set up, but if you’re familiar with The Faerie Queene, then it becomes jarringly clear that Morrison is up to some serious mischief at Albion’s expense. In Spenser’s original work, Arthur was desperately in love with the benevolent Faerie Queen -a calculated allegory for Queen Elizabeth I- whose favor Spenser sought in writing it. The Faerie Queene was an allegorical epic poem meant to connect England’s mythic history in the form of Arthur’s Camelot with the social and political context of the Elizabethan period, and in so doing, invented a romance between royal figures separated by a millennia.
By reframing Gloriana as an invading villain, Morrison not only subverts the original romantic framing, but slyly reinstates the temporal distance between Elizabeth and Arthur. As becomes clear later on in the event, Gloriana invaded Camelot from its own future. After their own colonial project exhausted all available resources, the Sheeda used Castle Revolving to invade and colonize its own past (and vows to continue doing so) in the ultimate dystopian vision of an empire in decline and a withering condemnation of politicized nostalgia.
Seven Soldiers of Victory is a much more complex work than a simple subversion of The Faerie Queene. When Gloriana appears for the first time to confront Justin/Ystin, she echoes Spartacus Hughes, the villain of The Filth confronting its hero Greg Feely/Ned Slade in their final confrontation. In The Filth, Hughes mocks Slade by going into explicit detail about the degradation that he’d just subjected an innocent woman to. In Shining Knight, Gloriana uses more euphemistic language that suggests the same nihilistic, colonialist ideology enacted on individual bodies as a microcosm of societal scale degradation.
It’s a jarring callback, but one of the key virtues of Seven Soldiers of Victory as a whole. Morrison returns to a lot of the key themes and motifs of his denser Vertigo work on SSOV, but rather than coming off as cynical recycling of familiar ideas, SSOV presents those ideas in a much more digestible form than the deeply esoteric Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, The Filth, and Flex Mentallo. Which makes the event as a whole either a rosetta stone, an ideal entry point, or both for the Morrisonian oeuvre.
Where Shining Knight inevitably draws the most comparisons to Gaiman is Ystin and Vanguard’s crash landing into the contemporary DCU and its parallels with The Sandman’s A Game of You arc featuring fairytale characters fleeing their world for a more rigidly contemporary, realist city due to the invasion of a similarly subversive enemy. That said, the execution is much different, and aside from how Morrison reinforces gender variance in opposition to Gaiman’s violent enforcement of gender norms, that difference comes through the strongest in Simone Bianchi’s artwork.
In The Sandman and other works besides, Gaiman tends to treat these kinds of intertextuality as violent, irreconcilable collisions that frequently ridicule the fantastical elements finding themselves in a contemporary context. Morrison, especially in Flex Mentallo, tends to take the opposite tack, viewing the fantastical and seemingly naive as a means to elevate the mundane.
Seen from that angle, Bianchi’s art is an almost disturbingly perfect externalization of Ystin’s viewpoint. In Camelot, Bianchi and Ystin are equally in their element: the fictional knight penetrating deep into the enemy fortress while her peers struggle outside and the artist articulates his incredible fluency and imagination for fantasy science fiction hybridization, easily blending Richard Corben’s bombastic high fantasy and H.R. Geiger’s hyper eroticized bio mechanical aesthetics.
When Ystin and Vanguard crash down into what should be a more familiar Los Angeles, it’s Bianchi’s fluid, curving linework and art deco tangents that bring the fantasy elements so fully and liquidly to life, giving familiar models of cars and handguns and eerie, alien quality that center her discombobulation rather than coding her as the disruptive figure.
It reverses the paradigm of comics like The Sandman or Fables, but it also constructs a gnostic, fallen vision of contemporary life that follows directly from The Filth. It’s a dynamic that sets the stage for the rest of the event, presenting a world drained of magic and wonder by the Sheeda’s depredations where the mundane and banal function as an oppressive hegemony in all but Shining Knight’s inverted mirror image, Klarion.
Ultimately Shining Knight #1 stands as an ironically audacious debut for what would prove to be Morrison’s most accessible, broad appeal superhero work (after All Star Superman). Instead of weighing down the debut of the first of the four issue series with exposition and hand holding, Morrison and Bianchi throw the reader headfirst into a deep well of idiosyncrasy and allusion, placing the success of the entire venture on their ability to swim in those deep waters.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Shining Knight #1
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Simone Bianchi
Colourist: Nathan Eyring
Letterer: Rob Leigh
When not ferociously wielding a mallet Veronique Emma Houxbois is a writer and critic whose work can be found on Comicosity, London Graphic Novel Network, and WWAC. In 2016 she was one of the contributors to the Love is Love anthology published by IDW. She can be found on Twitter here and on Patreon here.