By: Paul Cornell (story), Bernard Chang (art), Marcelo Maiolo (colors)

The Story: Hey, it may be Hell, but at least it’s custom-tailored to your tastes.

The Review: You may have heard by now that Cornell will leave this title in only a few more issues, which is heartbreaking, but apparently par for the course for him, given his records on Captain Britain and MI: 13 and Action Comics.  (I must say, this gives me chills about the future of Saucer Country already).  And even though successor Robert Venditti has gotten approval from Cornell himself, I still worry if he can bring what Cornell brought to this series.

Certainly a Cornell title doesn’t read like any other title out there.  He may not be as audaciously ambitious like Grant Morrison, but he really brings his own flavor of ideas to whatever he writes.  He never tells a story in a straightforward way, but always from an oddball angle completely unique to him.  Consider Demon Knights; the more you read it, the more you perceive the sullen tone it has that prevents it from being a pure sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

The characters simply refuse to allow anyone to define them or push them into familiar roles, whether archetype or stereotype.  In that sense, I see a definite resemblance to Secret Six and their freedom-above-all-else attitude.  Savage perhaps wears his independent streak more clearly on his sleeve than the others (“You’re assuming I lie to myself about what I do.  I really don’t.  My dear, were you told nothing about me?  I am Vanda Savage.  That suffices.”), but all the Knights reject domination in any form.

See how both Horsewoman and Sir Ystin recognize the nightmares devised for them as Hellish chicanery and retain absolute calm.  See how even as Etrigan subjugates Madame X to subservient status, you can hear an exaggerated inflection to her language that reeks of sarcasm as she devotes herself to him: “I know only what you tell me I know.  I would not dream of having a thought of my own.  …That is how you have fixed things for me here.  And I love it!”  It’s worth noting that her seeming mindlessness throws a wrench into his plans just as well as if she had all her faculties in place.

One thing I’ve always liked too about Cornell’s writing is how he always manages to balance exposition with advancing the plot, which is no easy feat when you have eight cast members to work with.  You’ll notice that every few issues, he’ll take an opportunity to give little glimpses into the characters’ backgrounds and motivations, some more significantly than others.  Some of the more important bits we learn during their tortures in Hell: Shining Knight’s quest “transcends”most, if not all, obstacles (even to Lucifer’s amusement); Horsewoman’s potential origin story; the tension between Al Jabr’s knowledge and religion; and Exoristos’ part in causing lasting changes (and damage) to the DCU.

Obviously, I have no reason to knock Chang’s art outright, given his talent.  Especially considering the serious tone this title has taken as of late, his work seems more appropriate than ever.  But I still miss Diógenes Neves’ fun, snappy art and the way he just fills panels with details and props and background features and characters that make the world inside the comic come to life.  Emotionally, though, Chang has the upper hand, and he’s no slouch himself when it comes to design (check out the unique armors of Questing Queen’s various soldiers).

Conclusion: An informative issue, but a transitional one, meaning what you learn comes at the expense of a slightly quiet plot, despite taking place in the fires of Hell.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – “[P]ure hatred compacted in the strata of Hell” may be the greatest description of the Black Diamond ever.

– Afterlife politics seems a murky business.  Lucifer makes mention to Exoristos of Hades, “[t]hat Greek dread lord who really should be looking after you.”