The X-Men were what got me hooked on comics. The very first series I started reading regularly were Uncanny X-Men and (adjectiveless) X-Men. But the next big “franchise” I set out to explore after X-Men was the Avengers. I started reading the main Avengers book during the Bob Harras and Steve Epting run, during which the character of Dane Whitman/Black Knight was a featured player, field leader of the Avengers and one of the drivers of the series’ overarching narrative. He had a leather jacket and cool stubble, and was stuck in two different love triangles at the same time! Meanwhile, I was picking up Avengers back issues at my local comic shops. Most of what I could acquire on my meager allowance was issues from the back half of the mid-’80s Roger Stern/John Buscema/Tom Palmer run, which also featured Black Knight in a prominent role, having been a stalwart member for dozens of issues at that point in time, mildly pining for team leader Wasp and serving as that roster’s “science guy” in the absence of the likes of Hank Pym or Tony Stark.
All of which is to say, I grew up both with a lot of affection for Black Knight and his blend of science and sorcery, and the belief that he was a steadfast, integral part of Avengers lore—maybe not as much a mainstay as the “big three” of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, but certainly of a piece with Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye. Only over time, as my increased finances (and the increased availability of old stories beyond what could be found at comic shops and cons) allowed me to become more familiar with the wider sweep of Avengers history, did I realize my own unique timing and circumstances had pushed me to literally the only two times in that entire decades-long history in which Black Knight was the integral component to the Avengers’ success that I had assumed he always was.
Black Knight: Curse of the Ebony Blade, collecting a five-issue miniseries by writer Si Spurrier, penciler Sergio Davila, inker Sean Parsons, colorist Arif Pianto, and letterer Cory Petit, attempts to grapple somewhat with that disconnect, with the gap between “Black Knight: Important Avenger” and the character’s reality (both in-universe and not) as something of an afterthought in Avengers lore, a character who burned bright a couple times but was otherwise a non-factor. It also attempts to show the character dealing with some recent changes to his backstory and to establish additional changes to that backstory, as well as trying to examine the power of myths and the stories we tell about how things happened versus the reality of how they actually happened. If that seems like a lot for a five-issue miniseries to take on, well, it is, and unfortunately, the series isn’t entirely successful in accomplishing all its goals.
“I thought, I dunno… we were hanging out”
Curse of the Ebony Blade opens with the Avengers battling the Lava Men. Black Knight arrives on the scene, and in the course of the ensuing fight, writer Si Spurrier does two things. One, he catches up any new readers who missed the recent King in Black: Black Knight one-shot (also written by Spurrier) with the changes established there regarding the Ebony Blade, the black-bladed sword carried by Black Knight (when he’s not using a cool ’90s lightsaber instead). For many years, the idea was that the sword was cursed, causing its wielder to become darker in personality and/or to literally become physically more like the sword the more it was used. That notion was flipped on its head in the King in Black tie-in with the revelation that the sword merely amplifies the darkness of its wielder, growing more powerful based on how dark the person using it is. The sword doesn’t cause its wielder to become evil—the darkness of the wielder causes the sword to become more powerful. Coming to terms with that reversal—that the darkness inside Dane Whitman is his own and not a result of the sword itself—and finding a way to be a hero when it’s his worst impulses and emotions that gives him his power forms the character arc that Dane experiences in this series.
The second thing Spurrier does in the opening pages is address Black Knight’s status amongst the Avengers. Here, he does that thing where he reflects real-world fan opinions on a character in the text itself, making the character’s standing in-universe representative of how the fandom generally considers him. Most readers (my younger self aside) don’t consider Dane Whitman to be an integral part of the Avengers mythos, and Spurrier leans into that in the series’ inaugural issue, with the rest of the Avengers viewing Black Knight as something of an oddity (despite his history with the team): someone they don’t really like but humor because his skills occasionally come in handy. It’s an irritating beat, both for the way it discounts the character’s very real contributions to Avengers history and also for the way it’s a bit too postmodern, having in-universe characters motivated by the consensus of real-world fans. But it does set up the thematic arc for the series: the question of appearance versus reality and what happens when a fiction might be more powerful than the truth. This is shown in microcosm in the way Dane interacts with the Avengers during the Lava Men battle, using a flowery dialogue style in an attempt to prop up his image as a chivalrous knight (Thor wonders at one point if Dane is mocking him), even while it’s Dane’s non-chivalrous hate and self-loathing that give him the power to quickly end the threat of the Lava Men.
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A Ghost, a She-Unit, and a Darth Vader Cosplayer
Meanwhile, the story introduces Jacks, a young iconoclastic professor interested in probing the often-contradictory myths surrounding Camelot. She gets drawn into Dane’s orbit and begins to experience visions of the historical Camelot, a place, as she has long suspected, vastly different from the one she’s familiar with via fables and stories. This, in part, exposes the villain of the story: Mordred, the nephew/son of King Arthur and an old foe of Dane’s, who is trying to harness the legacy of the Ebony Blade as well as its brethren objects, the Ebony Chalice, Ebony Dagger, and Ebony Shield. Jacks also drives much of the story’s character and thematic development. She learns that the myth of Camelot is very much an intentional construct of Merlin, who felt the legacy of the fictional (sanitized) version of the place would have more power than the reality of a place that was much more diverse and feminist than the tales would suggest. She also discovers that the original Black Knight was not the honorable guard of Camelot Dane always thought he was, but rather Camelot’s berserker, a weapon deployed to overpower threats to the realm and keep the hands of more refined knights clean.
Jacks’s involvement and revelations involving her relationship with Dane also forces him to confront some difficult happenings in his own past, and to question the myths he’s told himself about his life. As much as this is principally a story about Dane Whitman, by the end, Jacks stands out as functionally the co-lead of the series, and it is better for it. Additionally, Dane and Jacks are joined in their shared battle against Mordred by Elsa Bloodstone, Marvel’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque monster hunter, who brings a kind of snarky, crass charm to the proceedings. Though she and Jacks occasionally cover the same ground in their shared irreverent reactions to events and the too-cool-for-school energy they bring to the table, Elsa’s presence definitely makes the story more entertaining when she’s on the page.
The art for all five issues comes from penciler Sergio Davila and inker Sean Parsons. In terms of the figures and layouts, their work is very much in the late 2010s Marvel house style, affable and easy to follow without being terribly innovative or memorable. At the same time, they do pack an astonishing amount of detail into some panels, taking the time to render the stone bricks of a castle wall, for example, or the intricate designs of a stained glass window. The end result gives the series, at least at times, a richer visual look that adds some depth to the otherwise serviceable but unremarkable art.
Two Broken People, One Hero
Ultimately, this is a series that works best when it focuses on its characters and suffers when the realities of the world outside the story’s universe infringe on it. Dane Whitman struggling to tame the darkness inside him and still remain a hero, while grappling with the complicated legacy of his ancestry? Compelling stuff. Dane Whitman acknowledging and steering into his real-world status as a C-list character? Less so. Similarly, the little changes and tweaks to Dane’s backstory—things like the shifting of the curse from residing in the blade to residing in the wielder of the blade, or Dane having his ancestry connected directly to King Arthur—stick out not because they’re upending the deeply entrenched backstory of a beloved character, but because they read very much like changes made to support the character’s entry into the MCU via The Eternals (I don’t know at this time how that film is going to present the character, but “descendant of King Arthur” seems a lot more straightforward for a general audience than “descendant of a guy who hung around with King Arthur”). The changes themselves aren’t bad, but it’s never good when the hand of corporate synergy is so apparent.
Even the conclusion of this series, which offers up an intriguing new status quo for the character that could either upend or further some of the issues explored by Jacks’ reckoning with the myth of Camelot, is tainted somewhat by real-world concerns. The place this story ultimately ends makes the whole thing read more like the first act of a new ongoing series rather than a finite, self-contained story. But it’s not the opening arc of a new series, because (as the story itself reminds us), Black Knight isn’t a fan-favorite character capable of carrying his own book. Certainly, if sales are there, there may be another Black Knight miniseries, and it seems likely that the character will turn up again somewhere. But if there’s not another series, or if, when the character does reappear, the changes and revelations of this story are ignored, this whole endeavor—the work it does to advance Dane’s character, introduce Jacks, and create a new status quo for Black Knight—will feel a bit more like a waste of time.
Of course, any comic book story should be judged on its own merits, and not be beholden to future unwritten stories for its own success. Yet it’s also hard to completely divest even the best superhero comic book stories from their existence as chapters in an ongoing shared narrative universe. To do so, a story needs to click on multiple levels, with the writing and art holding sway in such a way that all other concerns fall away. Unfortunately, while there’s plenty in Curse of the Ebony Blade to enjoy—and I certainly hope we see more of Dane and Jacks, picking up where this series leaves off—it’s not quite good enough to escape the realities of its existence.
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