Of the Unsung Shining Knight

Way back in March of 2013, a news story hit about DC Comics outing their first transgender character within the pages of Batgirl. Said character was Alysia Yoeh, a bisexual transwoman of color, who happened to be Batgirl’s roommate. This was done by then Batgirl writer, Gail Simone as an effort to create more visible members of gender, romantic, and sexual minorities within mainstream superhero books. We’ve even had an article about it on our own blog. While this is an obvious cause for celebration, even one year after the fact. There are still some hang ups I have about this issue that genuinely disappoint me.

Now before I begin I want to emphasize that I have absolutely no qualms with writer Gail Simone or her characters. Simone is someone who tries her absolute hardest to bring better diversity and visibility to comics with titles like Secret Six and The Movement. All the while she keeps a shockingly good attitude towards many of her detractors and the issues with editors she has at DC Comics. She’s a good writer and just about everything in her bibliography is recommended reading.

What bothered me about this and continues to is that this was not the first time DC Comics introduced a transgendered character, just the first time they thought it was something to market and give out to various media outlets. There have been transgender characters in DC’s continuity before, albeit a disappointingly small population.  Now one can argue that Alysia was the first transgender character in the New 52 (a reboot started in 2011 that’s been the current DC Universe continuity) but even then they’re wrong. Alysia didn’t officially come out at transgender until over a year and a half into the reboot (Alysia appeared early in Simone’s run on Batgirl but was later decided to be transgender) when there’s been a character out since day one. That character is Sir Ystin, a.k.a. Shining Knight, of Demon Knights.

Also Ystin has a sick winged horse
Also Ystin has a sick winged horse

At the same time that Batgirl was being published, another series started which slipped under the radar, Demon Knights. The series follows a number of DC’s classic fantasy, medieval, and immortal characters are they deal with rampaging hordes, vampires, pirates, and the forces of Hell in 11th century Europe. The group consisted of several new characters created for the reboot but also some of DC’s B-List classic characters. One of those characters was classic Golden Age hero, Shining Knight.

Original Shining Knight
The original Shining Knight, Sir Justin

 

Shining Knight is a character with a very long history. He was created back in 1941 by Creig Flessel (the same year as Wonder Woman) as a knight of King Arthur’s court with his pegasus, Winged Victory, called Sir Justin. After being held in suspended animation for several centuries, he wakes up in 1941 and teams up with both the All-Star Squadron and the Seven Soldiers of Victory.  He’s served as a background member of teams such as the Justice Society of America and the Justice League. He also was a reoccurring character on the Justice League Unlimited show and even got to give this epic line in an episode dedicated to the Seven Soldiers:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjAO2NRcPqs#t=1m19s[/youtube]

Fun fact: That episode’s name is “Patriot Act.”

Shining Knight #1 by Grant Morrison
Shining Knight #1 by Grant Morrison

In 2005, writer Grant Morrison reimagined the character for his Seven Soldiers of Victory series (That shared little with the original team.) In that, Justin was a knight from 8,000 BCE and was later revealed to be a teenage girl pretending to be a man. As a girl, she is unable to become a knight and masquerades as a man to fight along side Sir Galahad who she has an affection for.  She eventually gets drawn into the greater events of Seven Soldiers involving time travel and such with a pegasus named Vanguard.

Cut forward to the 2011 reboot, Paul Cornell brought Shining Knight on board for his series Demon Knights. Sir Ystin (pronounced Justin) in that series draws most influence from his female predecessor save for one major difference.

Ystin's Aspects
This is from Demon Knights #14, almost half a year before Batgirl #19

Yep, Shining Knight comes out as trans*. Paul Cornell’s gone on record to say he deliberately leaves Ystin’s ambiguous. However Ystin seems to identify as male, as least some of the time.

BookScanCenter_3
My personal interpretation is that he’s intersex, I honestly don’t think I can recall any in mainstream comics.

Ystin’s place on the Demon Knights is especially interesting since out of his other male counterparts, he’s arguably the most ideally masculine. The other men in Demon Knights are the immortal Vandal Savage is a power hungry monster, responsible for a number of history’s greatest crimes, Etrigan the Demon is, well, a demon who laughs at the suffering he brings, and Jason Blood, a scribe boy, is nothing short of a pathetic loser who’s only use is summoning Etrigan. The only other respectable man on the team is the inventor Al Jabr, a Muslim who uses his knowledge to help people and is the first one to try to resolve problems peacefully. Sir Ystin on the other hand? He falls into the role of the heavily romanticized chivalrous knight. His character personifies all the positive aspects of a fairytale knight with none of the sexist overtones.

 

The reason why I’ve gone on about Sir Ystin for so long. Is this: why is it that Alysia Yoeh gets a big press release when Sir Ystin doesn’t? If I had to say, it’s because Alysia was on a Batman related title. If there’s one thing DC Comics loves it’s shilling Batman titles. As much as I hate it, I’m not terribly surprised and I do like that a transwoman of color is getting more press.

Team member Exoristos misunderstands Ystin's gender
Team member Exoristos misunderstands Ystin’s gender

However this is what really gets to me. Alysia probably won’t be around as long as Sir Ystin will and in the context of their stories, Ystin is more important. Sir Ystin is a character who goes back to the golden age of comics and has starred on some of the original superhero teams ever. His quest to find the Holy Grail drives a lot of the story and he even got an entire issue dedicated to his origin. Alysia on the other hand? She’s just Batgirl’s roommate. She’s a non-powered supporting character in a superhero comic and those don’t last very long. Unsurprisingly, Gail Simone’s Batgirl run ended as of this week and the new writers will likely have her play a smaller role under the pen of Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher.

Ystin crying
Ystin talking with Merlin

Meanwhile, Demon Knights ended about a year ago, despite having a large group of female heroes, one of the few Muslim heroes, a hero that was paraplegic, and one of the few new gay women in comics Exoristos (who later forms a romantic relationship with Ystin.) It’s not like a book like that could have used some extra publicity and sales….just saying.

  2 comments for “Of the Unsung Shining Knight

  1. Emily Humberson
    September 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Wow! You cover some really interesting topics in this blog post, and I learned a lot about comics I’d never even heard of. I also hadn’t quite realized that comic books characters are recycled and re-purposed in ways that you mentioned in your post. I think this would be a really interesting way to look as Ystin’s character and how it has changed over different publications.

    Moving on, much of your post seemed to be questioning why Alysia, in such a small role, would gain so much notoriety as representing a transgender individual, while Ystin goes unmentioned. I think in terms of Alysia’s gender identity being a tool that could be used for marketing you’re absolutely right. Comic books are fairly notorious for being a bit behind the times in terms of gender equality, and the inclusion of a transgender character could certainly set a comic apart as being more progressive and accepting. It sounded from your post that Alysia is a more recent character than Ystin as well. Perhaps since awareness of the marginalization of gay and transgender individuals is something that has gained more emphasis in recent years, the media finds it to be something more worthy of coverage than it would, say, 10 years ago. Finally, I think Alysia gains more attention because her identity is more straightforward: she is a transgender woman. When comparing Alysia to Ystin, Ystin’s identity is not easily compartmentalized into one easy label. I like this about Ystin’s character as it supports the idea of gender as something more fluid and constructed rather than authoritative, but ultimately this makes it harder to say “Oh wow! Ystin is such a progressive character choice! He’s ________!” Ultimately, while Ystin may be more progressive, a larger role, and a more rounded character, I think his character receives less attention because he can’t be as narrowly boxed into a label.

  2. Grant
    September 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Wow, thank you for actually reading this!

    You raise a very good point on the ethics of marketing in mainstream comics. Few companies want to sell a character on characteristics which likely the readers and the creators themselves cannot fully explain. Hence it would make more sense to give a big publicity push for a person with a gender more identifiable for a less in enlightened audience. (Though personally I can’t help but feel another big reason was because Alysia Yeoh was in a Batman related book.)

    However, I also feel that it outlines a massive problem with the larger public understanding of trans* people as most media outlets which try to add gender diversity to their work stick with only transmen and transwomen, cutting out any and all non-binary people who fall under categories like agender, gender fluid, and many others.

Comments are closed.