By Emma Houxbois
After an ambitious, epic-scale debut, Shining Knight settles into a more recognizable fish out of water story as Ystin finds herself lost in Los Angeles.
Discombobulation is the order of the day for the second issue and Simone Bianchi rises to the occasion to produce arguably the most oppressive atmosphere of the seven series, which is an impressive feat given how much of the other series take place either in New York with its much greater density of high rises or simply underground. Bianchi achieves this by using narrow, crowded panels and tight close ups on Ystin, but also most ominously by just blacking out the sky.
Where Bianchi is most successful in communicating disorientation is the panelling of Ystin’s escape from the police in the opening of the issue. He hews close to the large, open panels that defined action sequences from the late 1990s through to the mid 2000s, what Warren Ellis coined “widescreen comics” when he introduced the idea on The Authority with Bryan Hitch in 1999.
While Jack Kirby used single horizontal panel rows decades earlier, Ellis and Hitch’s employment was a lot more sparse and for a different purpose. Their goal was to close the conceptual gap between film and comics by leaning into hyper-realism and mimicking the composition of action movie cinematography.
Where Hitch would have used “dutch angles” by rotating the perspective of the content of the panel perpendicular to the panel borders, Bianchi instead builds layouts out of asymmetrical panels, sometimes with Ystin’s perspective anchored to the panel borders, and sometimes at odds with it. The more conventional “widescreen” style of the period is effective at depicting characters’ disorientation, but Bianchi’s work on Shining Knight reveals the narcissism of the viewer inherent to that approach.
Whereas the plane within the panel can tilt in any given direction to disorient what’s depicted in the panel, the reader/spectator remains in a fixed, secure position, reinforcing the boundaries between subject and object. Despite the hyperrealist style of artists like Hitch and McNiven, widescreen style comics reinforce the fact that the figures on the page are simulacra and further the ideology that comics are a simulacra of film, rather than an independent artistic medium of their own.
By breaking up the page the way that he does, Bianchi opens the sense of disorientation up to content and format, subject and object. It’s one of the subtler applications of Morrison’s ideological project of breaking down the barriers between the reader and the characters since Animal Man, especially compared to the concurrent Zatanna.
Released between the first and second issues of Shining Knight, Zatanna’s debut introduces spatial distortion on the page in the way that Ryan Sook displays Zatanna moving through multiple planes represented by completely disconnected panels. She navigates them easily while the reader never has a complete conception of where she’s going and what she’s seeing. It’s a one sided disorientation that puts Zatanna in possession of more information and ease than the reader, completely inverting the norms of comic book storytelling.
In contrast, the disorientation in Shining Knight #2 creates a synthesis of the perspectives and a sense of empathy with Ystin’s condition.
In a similar and more ironic way, Shining Knight #2 preempts Zatanna #2’s emphasis on the linguistic construction of reality with the appearance of a Sheeda Mood 7 Mind Destroyer sent to kill Ystin through words alone. It’s an amusing motif to employ parallel to Zatanna, whose power is to speak things into existence by saying them backwards, but the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer is another reference to The Faerie Queen, which employed a similar monster, who could not be touched and attacked with emotions through words.
Ystin’s battle with the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer frames Ystin’s story as an example of Katabasis, an archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld to return with fresh insight. Ystin falls out of Camelot into the “fallen” world of contemporary Los Angeles where the Sheeda have won. It’s an inversion of Klarion’s concurrent rise to the surface from below, and a manifestation of the Gnostic view of the present material world as the furthest from divinity and fundamentally diseased in some way.
That descent is also articulated by Morrison and Bianchi as a manifestation of Jacques Lacan’s stages of childhood development, specifically Ystin’s re-entry into language as a kind of rebirth experience since leaving the castle revolving. Until Ystin prevails against the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer, she exists in a chaotic realm of pure sensation and materiality without the structure and order that language imposes, a key aspect of Lacan’s view of pre-linguistic children.
From that viewpoint, Ystin’s fight with the Mood Destroyer is a metaphorical representation of the trauma of (re)birth and the entry into language. Throughout the conflict, Ystin interacts with the world like an infant: reaching for food from a vendor who swats her away because she hasn’t paid and doesn’t understand modern money. She responds only to sensation, whether it’s spitting up the rotten food she tries to eat or responds to the violent provocation of getting a drink dumped onto her.
That immediately changes once she’s confronted her guilt and banishes the mood destroyer. She talks to a man on a park bench, remarking that his speech is clear, understanding another human for the first time since leaving Camelot. It completes Shining Knight #2 as a far more visually driven issue than its debut, taking Ystin through the disorientation of her new time and place into a kind of rebirth necessary to facing the challenges ahead.
Ystin is assured by the old man that she won’t be alone on her heroic journey, and the bus that pulls up in front of them has an advertisement full of stars on it to match the halo of epiphany that surrounds her head in the next panel. There’s some light: stars have returned to the night sky, but the rampaging Nebuloh is also made of stars.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Shining Knight #2
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Simone Bianchi
Colourist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Rob Leigh
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.