By Emma Houxbois
It’s the climax of a Grant Morrison series, which means that there are competing binary forces that need resolving into a synthesis. For Shining Knight, that binary is a particularly sticky wicket: the social construct we know as gender.
Much of Morrison’s oeuvre is in producing games of fairy chess as comics, an idea illuminated by Gail Simone and Jon Davis Hunt’s Clean Room. Fairy chess differs from typical chess problems in that the rules of play have been changed, the pieces on the board move in unfamiliar ways and the conditions of victory have been altered in a way that obscures the intended message – which remains eerily applicable to Morrison’s oeuvre, especially works like The Invisibles that were engineered with the goal of altering the consciousness of the reader.
Most fiction is, if not fairy chess, then at least a standard chess problem: a contrived scenario unlikely to happen in real life meant to teach the player a particular lesson. Like the infamous Kobayashi Maru simulation in Star Trek intended to prepare prospective Starfleet captains for the possibility of death in the line of duty by presenting them with a no win situation. Wikipedia suggests that chess problems differ from standard or “over-the-board” play in that they are a conflict between the person who composed the problem and the person trying to work it out instead of a literal conflict between black and white. There has probably never been a better description of Grant Morrison as a writer.
Chess can be read into Seven Soldiers of Victory in a dizzying number of ways: the self awareness of the narration and the overtly metafictional perspective of Zatanna cultivate the sense of the soldiers being pieces moved across a board as part of a larger strategy and the fixation on binary oppositions like the deadly rivalry between All Beard and No Beard evoke the literally black and white conflict of over-the-board chess. Even Nebuloh is composed of a black and white star field.
That dynamic is at its most blunt in Shining Knight because the subject positions of the hero and villain correspond directly to chess pieces: Knight and Queen. The juiciest irony of this issue is that it exposes for the first time that Gloriana thought she was playing over-the-board chess and that she was the hand moving the pieces when she was in fact a piece on the board of a game of fairy chess, something that Ystin has understood the entire time. It’s the collision between Gloriana as the representation of the colonial English imaginary and Ystin as the colonized Welsh progenitor.
This focus on binary opposition snaps Simone Bianchi’s stylistic choices into sharp relief. The extreme sexual dimorphism reminiscent of Richard Corben and the insectile aesthetics of H.R. Giger come together in Gloriana and the corrupted Galahad to illustrate the extremes of gendered expectations that Ystin is struggling against. Gloriana declares that Galahad has discovered irony when he intuits that Ystin is not an underdeveloped teen boy, and instead a teenage girl who bound her breasts under her armor to disguise her sex – but it isn’t irony at all, it’s poetic justice.
Gloriana is a calculated evocation of the deepest anxieties of contemporary femininity. Her exaggerated, mostly exposed breasts, wasp waist, and skin tight fetish gear evoke all the ways that women are objectified in superhero comics (which Bulleteer later grapples with directly). The distinctly Gigeresque qualities in both her person and surroundings mean much the same thing that James Cameron found in them and amplified into the conflict that redefined the Ellen Ripley saga: the horror of womanhood reduced down to an implement of endless replication.
Gloriana’s corruption of Galahad is an equally extreme vision of toxic masculinity: a gigantic murderous automaton barely capable of intelligible speech. It’s a construct that Morrison has utilized before through Flex Mentallo’s introduction as an amnesiac victim of the depredations of the Pentagon in Doom Patrol and Spartacus Hughes taking control of Max Thunderstone’s body in The Filth. The motif functions as an allegory for the cumulative loss of innocence and optimism in superhero fiction from the heyday of Otto Binder to the post-Watchmen rise of cynical, violent selective realism, but it carries with it a unique application in Shining Knight.
Ystin and her androgynous presentation embodies the center of the gendered poles occupied by Gloriana and Galahad, which, in a fresh twist on the expected Morrisonian duality, isn’t a synthesis of the two but an aberration holding out against a pair of totalizing forces.
Ystin’s foil for the issue is Don Vincenzo, emerged from the cauldron and ready to face his final fate. With his chest bared and only wearing gold track pants, he mirrors Ystin with the mail over her chest torn off by Galahad. For Don Vincenzo, this is mythology; a grand destiny. He asks Horsefeathers to indulge a childhood fantasy and rides out firing a pair of modernized Tommy Guns complete with the iconic drum magazines. Scarface and James Cagney, the ne plus ultra of hypermasculine murder-suicide fantasies.
Ystin gets an equivalent, breathtaking moment of violence that comes by way of Gladiator and Fellowship of the Ring, decapitating Galahad from the mandible up delivered with the same level of spectacle as Vincenzo’s eponymous last stand with none of the catharsis or glorification. Killing Galahad isn’t an assumption of mythic glory for Ystin, it’s the tearful murder of her unrequited crush. A complete inversion of the kind of fridging that Bulleteer later parodies via Sally Sonic attacking Alix with a literal refrigerator.
Gloriana’s reaction to Ystin’s sex illustrates the colonial nature of the gender binary: as soon as she recognizes Ystin as female, she condemns her to a gendered fate that robs Ystin of the subjectivity of her gender non conformity, slotting her into a role that best suits colonial conquest. It’s a mirroring of how the European colonial project crushed non binary and trans identities across the globe in order to slot colonial subjects into the most convenient and expedient roles to enable plunder.
As the dust settles on Ystin’s pyrrhic victory, we’re treated to the story of how she was knighted by the man she loved and would eventually kill, granting her an agency and an affirmative arc that is exceptionally rare for gender nonconforming characters. It also stands as an example of the many instances where Morrison pushed gently subversive elements into their work that later writers would pick up and radicalize.
In this instance, Paul Cornell established his vision of Ystin as being specifically trans masculine in the short lived Demon Knights as part of his own effort to decenter the Arthurian mythos from cisgender heterosexual masculinity begun in earnest by granting Faiza Hussain Excalibur in Captain Britain and MI-13. As such Shining Knight stands as an exemplar of how Morrison, despite their esoteric inclinations, has consistently broken new ground that others have used to expand the horizons of representation in the medium.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Shining Knight #4
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.