Haunted Choreography in Knight Terrors: Nights End #1

Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 Main Cover by Howard Porter

With August in the rear-view mirror, so too is DC Comics’ latest event offering, with Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 now on shelves. Insomnia has the heroes of the world on the ropes, and it’s up to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Deadman and Sandman (no, not that Sandman) to put a stop to him. The question is, was this conclusion worth the wait?

What Place Does Knight Terrors Have in the Dawn of DC?

When Knight Terrors was announced, alongside the news that the recently launched Dawn of DC initiative would effectively be going on pause for the duration, I was more than sceptical. Killing such hard-fought-for momentum so early on, for an event that seemed like it was coming out of left field, felt like a baffling decision to make. Titles like Green Lantern, Titans and Shazam! were only two issues in, and were then telling readers they had to wait three months for the next true instalment. Couple that with a general apathy for events amongst the readership these days, and well received the news was not, as reactions ranged from somewhat curious at best to outright disinterested and glad to not have to spend money at worst.

Certainly, not the reception DC editorial could’ve been hoping for.

And yet, despite some trepidation, I ended up picking up a good deal of Knight Terrors. Between the main series and tie-ins like Batman, The Flash, Zatanna and more, there was a lot that managed to grab my attention. Some delivered genuinely phenomenal two-part tales that you should read regardless of your interest in the event (Knight Terrors: Detective Comics and Knight Terrors: The Flash, I’m looking at you). Others fell by the wayside as what felt like editorially mandated additions to the initiative, lacking all sense of substance. Much like any event, there were diamonds in the rough, and then a whole lot of rough.

Then, of course, there was the main series. Joshua Williamson – joined by Howard Porter, Caspar Wijngaard, Trevor Hairsine, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Nesi and Rain Beredo on art – had the task of threading all these disparate nightmares into one cohesive narrative. The spinal column was predicated on new villain Insomnia and returning heroes Deadman and Wesley Dodds’ Sandman, whose macabre conflict came to a head in Knight Terrors: Nights End #1.

Now, in spite of my general enjoyment of the tie-ins, the opening salvo of Knight Terrors: First Blood #1 did anything but impress me. The first issue felt underbaked, as the script came off more camp than chilling, and Howard’s pencils veered into a scratchiness that at times suited the horrific tone of the story, but at others felt obfuscatory.

Then, thanks to the brilliant choice of a fortnightly publishing schedule, each new chapter of Knight Terrors shortly found their way into my hands, and my opinion started to shift as the intelligence of the event’s design started to bleed through.

I found my frustration at the disruption this medium-stakes storyline was causing to the Dawn of DC fading, and instead settled in for the ride. With each issue opening with Deadman metatextually speaking to the reader, catching them up cryptkeeper-style on the trouble our heroes have found themselves in, my expectations of true horror were replaced with the light-hearted delight and titillation one might feel as they embark on a Halloween-themed rollercoaster ride, or the electric nervousness they feel in their bones as they enter a haunted house.

Knight Terrors‘ primary goal was to take all the pieces on Dawn of DC’s board, take a darkly tinged turned into a fun little detour, and quickly come out the other side with a few new toys to play with. Not up-end the multiverse. Not retcon huge swathes of continuity. Just to have fun.

In that light, Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 serves a great conclusion to the story Williamson and co. set out to tell. Rather than insist upon its own significance by making the all too familiar claim that “nothing will ever be the same”, it actually does the opposite. Things mostly return back to normal. The villain is defeated, the world is put back on track. There are lingering consequences, particularly for the headspace the Trinity find themselves in and the status of Amanda Waller’s plans, but they are secondary to the horror-themed escapism the event is trying to convey.

While others have responded to Knight Terrors with disappointment, I’ve found it to be a remarkable palette cleanser. So often, readers complain about events constantly upping the stakes to the point of exhaustion, but here DC have listened. Knight Terrors reads like an arc of Justice League that spilled out into a wider crossover, not unlike Drowned Earth from a few years ago. It’s big, but not too big. It’s additive, but not mandatory.

Frankly, it’s so inoffensive and entertainment focused that I struggle to sympathise with those decrying it as a stain on the publishing line. No one, the event included, was insisting it was required reading – but for those that were interested, we were simply invited in to the fun.

In that way, Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 operates the way I wish more “big” comics did. It takes previous developments – such as Bruce Wayne’s mental state, his healing relationship with Damian, the consequences of large-scale events like Dark Crisis – and spins a creative, continuity-conscious yarn that does not require you to read anything else, nor does it feel chained to the very shared universe that spawned it. Furthermore, the ramifications of this event neatly dovetail back into the ongoing narrative at the heart of the Dawn of DC, with Amanda Waller and The Light, without ever feeling like so much happens here that you’d be lost down the line having not read it.

It uses continuity in the best way: as a tool to enhance storytelling, not a mandate that constricts it. It’s something that’s becoming a bit of a staple of Williamson’s writing these days, and is causing his work to rise in my estimations.

That being said, while Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 does succeed in making this an event I’ll happily recommend to people looking for a gratifying, if not overly intense, romp through the DCU, it’s not without certain issues.

Even Nightmares Need Good Choreography

Something that stood out to me in Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 is, despite the extended page count, how tightly Williamson and Porter seemed to be fighting for room to breathe. It leads to a question of choreography, which branches into two separate concerns: literal action choreography, and structural narrative choreography.

On the structural side, this issue has a fair amount to wrap up. Insomnia’s final plans and his inevitable downfall, the confrontation between the Justice League and the Sleepless Knights, Boston Brand and Wesley Dodd’s specific functions within the story and, of course, any wider set up for the rest of the Dawn of DC. It leads to an interesting problem, one still unresolved from Dark Crisis, where some of Williamson’s scripts (particularly in event comics) end up feeling both slow and rushed in equal measure. This is due to how multiple things need to be checked off the narrative checklist, and yet moving through them is less a matter of characters being forced to make dynamic choices and more an exercise in choreographing certain players to enable plot progression at the right intervals.

It’s why seeing the Justice League fight nightmare constructs, and watching Deadman tussle with Insomnia in the dream world, feel far more perfunctory than they should, because they’re there because they have to be. Batman and co. need to resist this nightmarish onslaught – that’s implicit in the promise of an event comic – but there’s no real room on the dancefloor for any of that fighting to reveal anything interesting about any of the players involved. Similarly, Deadman’s attempts to talk Insomnia down exist because, of course, he has to try, but it also has to fail. Readers would feel shortchanged if the villain was softly talked down from a final fight. So, his efforts go in vain, taking up page real estate in an unfortunately necessary contract in the process.

What works far better is Deadman’s ultimate sacrifice. It’s one of the key moments in the issue that revolves around character agency, and as a result feels emotionally engaging. Count along: Deadman must choose between accepting Insomnia’s promise of a dream life, or sacrificing his real one to save the world; Insomnia must choose whether or not to relent when it’s clear the odds are stacked against him, or go down swinging in hopeless rebellion; Sandman must choose to let Deadman commit to the sacrifice play, finally letting him rest, or try and save him, which he’s compelled to do as a hero.

It’s not necessarily ground-breaking character work, but it understands the difference between things happening and dynamic, characterful storytelling.

That difference is what takes an event comic from disposable media to something you’ll pick back up off the shelf in 6-12 months’ time to revisit. Character is legacy, and obfuscated by some otherwise muddier moments, Williamson and Porter are fighting to make good on that philosophy.

Nothing could make that clearer than the moment Deadman does sacrifice himself, as the issue steps out of spook-tinged action-pomp and delivers a truly beautiful page of heroic self-actualisation.

Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 Deadmans Sacrifice
Howard Porter. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the action choreography side, this issue suffers from a problem that I think exists throughout the Western comics market – particularly Big-2 superhero comics.

I have little interest in engaging in a “Manga vs Comics” debate, least of all because it’s predicated on an unnecessary competitive framing, one that’s only ever brought up to further some asinine discussion about the so-called death of comics at the hands of the “woke agenda”. However, one area of comparison that does bare considering (at least on the level of the craft) is in the differences between how western comics and manga, particularly Shonen manga, approach their fight scenes.

I can’t even begin to fathom the number of times I’ve read a fight scene between multiple superpowered characters, especially in event comics, that my eyes just glaze over, waiting for the real plot to kick in. It’s not that the figurework or composition or anything like that is poor. It’s that there’s no weight, consequence or internal sense of narrative to any of the fighting. Take the double page spread below, for example:

On a technical level, this evokes a very classic set of sensibilities that I’d expect to see in the climax of an event. Witnessing the world’s greatest heroes valiantly defending against a tide of darkness is this essential, symbolic scene that you genuinely need in stories like this.

However, when I scrutinise the pacing and the rhythm of the page, the relationship between one image and the next, there’s no sense of sequentialism. These are all moments, wonderfully and characterfully rendered as they are, of heroism, but they’re just snapshots, cross-sections of a scene. It trades specificity for iconicity. And that would be fine, if nearly every other superhero comic didn’t also have to do that as they find themselves constrained to small per-issue page counts and a risk averse market. Unlike Shonen manga, whose publishing format allows them to potentially have one fight scene persist over months and months, western superhero comics couldn’t survive in the market with that type of publishing strategy. Sales would dip, likely due to complaints that “nothing is happening” regardless of the character work going on within the scene, and the book would be rapidly cancelled.

Instead, comics like Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 must be more economical with their storytelling. Grand confrontations often get compressed into a small handful of pages, and as a result the calibre of storytelling within those moments naturally softens, as there simply isn’t the time to focus on smaller character beats. The pages still look great, but the fights themselves lose any sense of distinct identity, leading to this general sense after putting down the issue of all your favourite action figures having been smashed against one another but not much beyond that.

Again, that’s why specific moments like Deadman’s deception upon Insomnia and his subsequent sacrifice stand out – they’re given the time to be unique, and as such memorable.

There are, of course, examples of fight scenes done well in modern superhero comics. Venom #21, from Al Ewing, Cafu and Pere Perez was a masterclass in action choreography a few months prior; A Righteous Thirst for Vengeance over at Image also showed everyone and their mothers how action should work last year, just to name a couple. My hope then, going into events like Batman/Catwoman: The Gotham War and Beast World later in the year, is that we start to see some of these lessons incorporated. Artists like Jorge Jiminez and Ivan Reis are masters at this purposeful fight choreography too, so I have high hopes that we’ll see these points translate into their issues of those stories.

Closing Thoughts on Knight Terrors: Nights End #1

While Knight Terrors initially evoked feelings of discontent with regards to its effects on the publishing line, effects that currently aren’t entirely abated but will ultimately not matter when these stories live most of their life in trade paperbacks, its final issue solidified the growing feelings of appreciation it had been stirring within me.

I, and many readers, have become so weary of the rapidly increasing event cycle, with Marvel and DC pumping out line-wide crossovers one after the other. Yet, when I reflect on it, the issue isn’t (nor has it ever been) with events themselves. Events, or at least the promise of events, are great. If they weren’t, companies wouldn’t be so motivated by sales to keep producing them. No, the problem with constant events is when they’re presented as mandatory, taking what should be an exciting experience with all your favourite characters crossing over and turning it into homework.

Knight Terrors: Nights End #1 circumvents all that by focusing on entertainment, not continuity management, pushing strong character beats and emotive artwork to the fore and only sprinkling in some wider universe developments at the end – creating something additive for those that read everything, while avoiding the prohibitive approach to continuity that many other stories have fallen foul of.

It’s not perfect of course – Knight Terrors: Nights End #1, and the series as a whole, often feels weighed down by the performance of certain necessary beats typical of stories like these. Porter doesn’t get quite as much room as he should to define the visual identity of what nightmare action should look like, and new creations like the Sleepless Knights don’t get to make as much of an impression as a result. But, the spirit is there. The action, while not as individual in its construction as I’d like, does carry a certain iconic quality, and the colourwork throughout is exceptional at tying the various pencillers’ work together.

It all culminates in an event that, while rough around the edges, has an earnestness to it that resonates with me. Bring on what’s next in the Dawn of DC!


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