Friday, 7 April 2017

Comic Review: Knights of Pendragon - Once and Future


As discussed elsewhere, the late eighties and early nineties were a time of give and take for comic fans. The give was that Watchmen, DKR, Deadline and Zenith had made the idea of grown-ups buying comics seem strangely normal; the take was that we had to call the things graphic novels and that everyone writing for the things suddenly thought they were Alan fucking Moore. Marvel UK rarely needed much of an excuse to overreach themselves and after finally begrudgingly admitting no-one liked Dragon's Claws, Death's Head or The Sleeze Brothers their next attempt to be a proper publisher came in the form of Knights of Pendragon

Writing duties went to Dan Abnett, who had worked on Transformers fleetingly while Simon Furman was doing about six other things and also enjoyed the dubious presence of the dreadful Sleeze Brothers on his CV and (because Abnett apparently always struggled to reach both sides of the typewriter) John Tomlinson, who had covered the standard British comic writer's union welcome gift of writing a few of Tharg's Future Shocks for 2000AD. It was clear Marvel UK wanted Alan Davis to draw it but he was quite happy in America and only contributed covers; instead Gary Erskine got the gig. The creative staff all featured on an advert in the first few issues, drawn wearing Arthurian garb and looking like a Games Workshop staff day out.

The basic premise was based heavily on a modern equivalent of Arthurian myth, heavily influenced by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th Century poem. I've not read that but it's impossible to miss as someone mentions it about every six or seven pages. The focus is on non-powered characters, the main leads being long-established Captain Britain supporting character DCI Dai Thomas and new creation Kate McClellan, who's basically a walking mouthpiece for the writers. Because Dan & John care about Issues and they are never, ever going to let you forget it. The comic goes out of its' way to let you know exactly what it thinks about environmentalism, sexism, racism, corporations, game hunting, seal culls, the National Front, crop-spraying, fast food, the rainforests blah blah blah. None of the views it takes on any of this stuff are objectionable, which actually makes it worse that it meanders out of its' way to make some stupid crass point about how Kate's co-anchor is a sleaze. The original issues were proudly printed on recycled paper and featured a letters page which bitched about Neighbours and browbeat anyone who asked if the comic was going to start being fun at any point. If your auntie who went to India once for a week and is always banging on about chakras was to give you a comic for Christmas instead of a bloody dreamcatcher she'd give you this comic.

This trade contains the first nine issues of the title in the apparent belief there would be enough demand for a second one and there wasn't. This means it contains an arc and a half. The complete one covers Dai becoming possessed by the original Gawain to combat a series of environmentally-motivated crimes where the victims are Bad People who die with an ironic twist - an immoral greedy farmer gets chopped up in punnets, that sort of rubbish. Kate's along for most of it sounding like a Guardian columnist; a strident Mary Sue vacuuming any joy out of proceedings. Up against them are the Bane, who take over Omni Corporation head Franseca Grace to help, and hired assassin Dolph. There's some support from extant British Marvel characters as well - Alistaire and Alysande Stuart handle the initial investigation for WHO but as Alysande wears a uniform she's obviously a crypto-fascist and her brother must be too for having never made her be a vegetarian or something so obviously both are miles out of character to push the book's agenda. Captain Britain meanwhile turns up several issues after he started appearing on the cover mainly to get told he's an establishment stooge, though to be fair him semi-accidentally killing Dai is basically spot on characterisation.

The second arc is only half-represented and sees Kate gradually getting the power of the Pendragon (yay...), a more substantial appearance from Union Jack (would be a genuine yay if only he wasn't miles out of character, being inexplicably designated as The Funny One) and the introduction of two new characters, Ben Gallagher (a charlatan author of an armchair  about the grail, a reference to Kit Williams' Masquerade after it caused a British sensation just over a decade earlier) and Peter Hunter (a newly-devised costumed hero who had been active as Albion in the first world war but now was a retired headteacher at a boarding school where - walloping great plot coincidence alert - Kate's son Cam is a pupil). It's much of the same old clumsiness, with us being shown Ben isn't a complete piece of shit because he's offended by an unauthorised seal cull while Peter's shown to be a good egg by standing up to a bossy PE teacher who wants to make Cam run (instead of sitting inside reading The Guardian, I guess). It's a pain for the book that half of it's missing but then it's not like the rest of the arc is all that good.

The comic's hip posturing makes it a weird time capsule, an even odder piece of over-earnest propaganda than war comics. Its' moral high horse is forever stumbling, from frequent unfulfilled cover appearances by Captain Britain to the need to throw in a big fight scene every issue to stop people from reading. Pompous and often badly drawn (it's so tempting to do a gallery of ugly Erskine faces for this one), Knights of Pendragon might not be quite as generic as the shit Paul Neary would smear all over the industry a year or so down the line but it might well be even more annoying.

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