You wouldn’t think that a mini-series from DC Comics, based on ideas by Grant Morrison, spinning off from the top selling Batman & Robin, written by prolific scribe Paul Cornell would be under the radar – but that’s exactly where Knight & Squire is right now. That’s okay, though: the quirky series, which details the adventures of the “British Batman and Robin,” is funny, heartfelt, and most of all intensely creative. Cornell has populated his alternate Britain with dozens of new superheroes and villains, including a reanimated clone of Richard III, and the British Joker, who’s much nicer than his American counterpart.
We chatted with Cornell about how the series came about, what’s coming up, and most importantly, challenged him to a pub quiz style game of “British or Not?” You’ll see what we mean in a minute:
Geek: What a lot of readers probably don’t realize is that Knight and Squire have been around in the DC Universe for a while… How aware of them were you before starting the miniseries?
Paul Cornell: I was only aware of them from Grant having used them previously in JLA and Batman. I liked the look of them, the design especially. There's something very old school but at the same time very modern about the Squire costume in particular.
Geek: What’s your take on each of the characters? Other than the trappings, what makes them different from Batman and Robin?
PC: Cyril's not very like any of the Batmen. He's motivated by social shame more than a great tragedy. He's the one who nearly went to the wrong side of the tracks. Beryl, on the other hand, shares a lot with people like Tim and Stephanie. She's a bit of an idealist, she wants to make a difference.
Geek: Do you think, as characters, they have a shelf life in the DCU other than just being the British Batman and Robin?
PC: Well, yes, I think they do. I think we've carved out a niche for them in terms of the sort of stories that can be told, and in giving them a wider context. I've already heard about some other creators wanting to use them. I think DC Britain, following on from Grant's lead, is becoming a very interesting place, like Gotham City or Star City or Central City or Metropolis in terms of the place defining the sort of stories that are told there.
Geek: The first issue is basically a list of supervillains and heroes, and pretty much all they do is hang around in a pub. Was that part of your pitch to DC? And how long before they said, “no way,” and then you did it anyway?
PC: They were utterly onside from the beginning, I couldn't have asked for more supportive editors. I outlined my plots from the top, and they were cool about it all.
Geek: Let’s talk about issue three a bit, which was probably my favorite single issue of the year (not to butter you up too much). I imagine there’s a certain freedom in publishing something over to the side of the DC Universe that allows you to write a comic where a cloned Richard III talks in asides, and takes over England.
PC: That's one of my favourite comics that I've written. It's the one I give to non-comic fans to show them what I do, because I think it reads easily to a mainstream audience. I was aware from the start that being given a brief to explore a whole country in the DC Universe, that hadn't had too much done there before, allowed me to do a lot of stuff that creators never get to do. It really has been such freedom. Every other book is hemmed in by continuity, and I got to play.
Geek: Part of the book also seems to be playing with the idea of a comic book a bit – is that accurate? And if so, can you talk about how that plays into the series?
PC: Not really, I'm kind of bored with breaking the fourth wall. I think Grant did it wonderfully and that finished it off, really. I guess they do sort of say goodbye to the audience at the end of the first issue, but other than that, I'm not really after that.
Geek: Tell us about issue five – what’s coming up? What changes? Will we start to see the ideas in the series coming together, or is this more a series of six one-shots?
PC: As you'll have seen by now, issue five sees the onslaught of gritty realism, as the Joker arrives to destroy as many of DC's British characters as he can, and, in doing so, tie the arc together. I'm very proud of how the one shots become a serial at the end.
Geek: To an outsider at least, this miniseries seems like the most British thing ever published. Would you agree with that?
PC: It's not even in the top hundred. Published in an American context, in an otherwise American universe, perhaps it's more rare, but the Muppets got there first too.
Geek: Fair enough… One important part of every issue is the back matter, which lists all the British-isms in the book, and usually has a game or two. Because of that, we thought we’d play a game with you called, “British or Not?”
Below you’ll see ten simple phrases. Some are British, some aren’t. You need to tell us which are British, and which aren’t – and either way, what they mean (or you think they mean). Sound easy? It potentially might be, because I don’t know how well known these phrases are in England. But no cheating or looking, and I’ll give you your full score at the end.
PC: It's like you're hoping to catch me out and discover that I'm secretly from Maine or something.
Geek: …Maybe we are? Anyway, here we go! (And those of you reading at home, feel free to play along, we’ll give the answers at the end.)
1. Drop a Clanger
PC: To say something indiscreet.
PC: Never heard of it.
PC: A London expression of delight, popularised by long running TV comedy 'Only Fools and Horses'.
4. “You don’t get owt for nowt.”
PC: A Yorkshire expression indicating that effort is needed to achieve reward.
5. Sweet Fanny Adams
PC: Nothing, a euphemism for another two words starting with F and A, the second of which is 'all'.
PC: A safe term of abuse that nevertheless doesn't make a hard case look ridiculous, as in 'you Muppet!'
PC: Meaningless stuff, especially stuff written down that isn't what you're looking for.
8. Chim Chim Cher-oo!
PC: Not many people know that the sweep Dick Van Dyke is portraying in Mary Poppins isn't actually from London, but is rather from an island half way between Australia and South Africa (the location varies). He gets that accent spot on.
PC: Mischief, sharp practice, eccentric stuff, odd goings on, virtually anything.
PC: Lurgy, more like, an illness, usually an infectious one. It sounds like one of the many gifts to English of Spike Milligan's writing on The Goon Show.
Geek: Fabulous job, and all correct except for Grem, which means, essentially, “to spit.” I think we’ll accept that you are, in fact British. And in case it wasn’t clear, Chim Chim Cher-oo is the only American phrase, because Mary Poppins was actually written by two Americans!
Before we let you go, though: now that you’ve settled over at DC, do you feel like you made the right decision by going exclusive? Do you miss the Marvel work at all?
PC: I miss writing Captain Britain, but that book had failed before I went to DC.
Geek: Any chance we’ll see more Doctor Who from you?
PC: I don't know.
Geek: Once you’re done with Knight & Squire, what’s coming up next at DC for you (Action Comics, of course, but anything else?)
PC: Nothing I can talk about yet, but there are two projects I'm very excited about.
"Knight and Squire" #5 is on stands now!